For a band who boast the legacy that AFI do, they don’t really have a lot to show for it. That might seem like a strange sentiment, but for all the bands who class AFI among a formative influence, there’s a very definitive time period within their catalogue where those roots can be traced to. More often than not, it’s the run of albums from Black Sails In The Sunset to Decemberundergound, where the coalescing of punk, post-hardcore and gothic rock felt its most vital and exciting, as well as its most refined. That’s another important thing to note about AFI, in that they might have pretty much perfected their sound in the early 2000s, but guaranteeing it to stay like that is a far different matter. It’s why so many now view AFI, and even the projects associated with them, under a far more negative light, now that the albums have become lighter and more meandering overall, and how that’s bled through time and time again. It’s not a set-in-stone rule, given how Dreamcar and XTRMST both have a lot of cool moments, but for AFI themselves, it might as well be. It only takes a look at 2017’s The Blood Album to see that, an album that’s only diminished in value over the years, where the plodding, underwhelming nature of modern AFI came together for their least essential album to date, a taste that even the improved follow-up EP The Missing Man couldn’t shake. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t feel as though there’s been a lot of excitement for Bodies, with plenty of pre-release singles that have had barely any groundswell, and just a generally nonplussed attitude that’s surrounded it basically since its announcement.
It does make sense as well, given that Bodies doesn’t feel like an album worth getting excited about, especially from a band as long-lived as AFI. It’s a bit less drained than their recent work on the basis of lightness and tempo, though there’s very little to back it up or give it considerable presence. It’s more throwaway than AFI need to be, especially with their aforementioned legacy that means they can well afford to do more than this. But the fact of the matter is they haven’t, and what’s left is a slighter, poppier version of AFI that has its hooks and melodies, but has the power wrenched out of it.
Though even despite that, after the sluggishness of both Burials and The Blood Album, the fact that Bodies does have a bit more of an uptick in pace is a nice sign overall. The needle has shifted far towards pop-rock in the overall vibrancy and fizziness that goes on, and when you’ve got a vocalist like Davey Havok that traffics in a lot of showmanship and bravado, there’s a nice payoff that goes on from both sides. Any upcoming issues aside, leaning into a profound new wave influence on Far Too Near and Begging For Trouble does yield a nice sense of bounce that, on the most surface level, satisfies the very performative aspect of AFI well. They aren’t writing deep songs necessarily, and there’s not a lot of lyrical turns that stand out, but the intention to craft a pop-ready album feels embraced pretty much from the jump. Twisted Tongues sets the tone of the album nicely, where Hunter Burgan’s bass runs with a nice spidery presence, and the sleeker sound of it all feels as though it’s in line with that pop workability. Conceptually, Bodies has a few nice ideas that AFI wear prominently; it’s a slicker, sharper version of themselves that the band seem to be fully committed to, and for how wishy-washy they’ve been lately in both sound and intention, that’s a good jumping-off point.
And yet, for all of that praise and good will that they might’ve have otherwise built up, Bodies is still a latter-day AFI album, complete with all the weakness and underpowered trappings that have defined this era for them up to now. It’s worth keeping in mind that, for all the poppiness and big, brazen hooks that AFI will launch into, not a lot of them actually stick, which feels like a similar consequence of an aesthetic placed above a grade of musical quality that’s held them back for at least two albums now. For as much as they like to keep the production in house, Jade Puget just doesn’t seem to grasp what makes material like this work, and between both The Blood Album and a lot of Blaqk Audio’s output, his work just doesn’t bring out any sort of resonance, which is especially crippling for an album as hook-centric as this is. It’s all well and good for Dulcería to try and replicate the slinky, vintage electro-rock of Dreamcar, but aside from the bass groove, there’s just a really bloodless feel to it all. Across the board, the production whittles this album down chronically, where there isn’t a lot of body to speak of in guitars and drums that just sound gated and colourless on the likes of Escape From Los Angeles, and where in Havok’s quieter register on Dulcería or Tied To A Tree, he sounds so weak and weedy. Granted, the grinding pace of the latter means that it has more pressing issues of its own, but boiled down to its key parts, Bodies doesn’t give much to really work with. It’s a very slight and underweight album, cutting away both pop-rock verve and gothic grandeur for an uncomfortable middle that satisfies neither side. AFI’s genre agnosticism has never been as great as many might attribute, but when the lines are blurred and squashed down to such an almost worthless degree, it becomes difficult to see how much of anything can be gleaned from it.
And at the end of the day, when AFI are already going through a frankly elongated period of their material not being up to scratch, another one to throw onto the pile doesn’t look to achieve much. Bodies is unquestionably a step in the right direction, simply from a logistical point of view, but it’s not a big enough one to properly correct their course, nor does it add much to AFI’s discography beyond another deviation that’s made to feel all the more flippant by its own hand. All of that is to say that Bodies rings more like a missed opportunity than an outright dud, because its shortcomings are more a result of mismanagement and an underwhelming job than the central ideas. That’s a start to getting in a better position then, especially when there are plenty who’d argue that both factors contributed to the failures of the last handful of albums, but it’s not as though anything great seems just around the corner. If anything, AFI’s long game might just wind up being too tiresome and unfulfilling to sit through.
For fans of: Dreamcar, Blaqk Audio, The Birthday Massacre
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Bodies’ by AFI is released on 11th June on Rise Records.